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Going After Gascoigne Is Risky Business

July 28, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES

Major League Soccer is about to give more than one-quarter of a million dollars to a man who doesn't want to see his name in the newspapers or hear it on the evening news.

D.C. United is about to acquire a player whose most fabled exploits in the last decade or so have involved the public consumption of vast amounts of alcohol and the not-so-public abuse of his wife, plus other assorted unseemly escapades.

Ray Hudson, coach of the three-time MLS champions, acknowledges that it's all a huge gamble, one that could backfire badly on him, his team and the league.

So why on earth are MLS and D.C. United even talking to Paul Gascoigne?

Because they're desperate.

The league virtually vanished in the shadow of the World Cup and has not found a way to emerge. D.C. United, once the flagship team of MLS, is perilously close to not making the playoffs for the third season in a row.

So it was time to go fishing, time to reel in Gascoigne.

No one calls him that, of course. For 18 years he has been simply "Gazza," one of the lads, the once bright and shining star of English soccer, now reduced to seeking a place to play in what are, essentially, soccer's backwaters.

Because that's the way MLS is viewed from where Gazza comes. The league might have taken several promising steps in its seven years, but every time it opens its fields to horses too old and too unsteady to race any longer, it takes a step back.

Gascoigne is 35. That's long in the tooth for a soccer player. Whether he can still keep up remains to be seen.

Burnley didn't think so. The English first division team did not renew his contract at the end of last season. It seemed the end of the road for Gascoigne, but he found that being a free agent can be almost as useful as being a free spirit.

America beckoned and Gascoigne listened.

He had started out with Newcastle United (Hudson's former club) as a 17-year-old in 1984 and had gone on to play for Tottenham Hotspur, Lazio, Rangers, Middlesbrough, Everton and Burnley. Now, new worlds called.

"He has always wanted to play in the States, and it's a standard of football he will be comfortable with," said his agent, Ian Elliott.

Elliott might be twice wrong in that assessment.

First, there are a growing number of good players in the league, players Gascoigne might struggle to keep up with on the field.

Second, D.C. United is not much of a team. Gascoigne is unlikely to be impressed by a club that has won only six of 18 games this season and which, in Hudson's view, was "embarrassing, pathetic and woeful," in one recent loss.

"I've got to get the whip out now and just flog them," he told the Washington Post last week.

Still, Gascoigne could fit right in, if a recent description of his play is anything to go by.

In the last two seasons, in which he has played only 21 games, Gazza "became something of a caricature of himself, his aging and injury-ravaged body unable to produce the sort of wondrous moments that propelled him to stardom in the first place," a Reuters report stated.

Supposedly, however, he is in reasonable shape. When he arrived in Washington on Wednesday, he was said to be tanned and fit after two weeks of conditioning work in Cyprus.

He trained with D.C. United on Friday, was scheduled to watch the team's game today, train again Monday and possibly Tuesday and then make a decision Wednesday.

That is, assuming MLS and D.C. United don't make a decision first.

Bringing Gascoigne to MLS in 1996, the league's inaugural season when such playmakers as Carlos Valderrama, Marco Etcheverry and Mauricio Cienfuegos arrived, might have made sense. Now, it is questionable at best.

Commissioner Don Garber realizes that and knows that Gazza brings a lot of baggage with him, but is willing to let that slide.

"I'd like to think we shouldn't be haunted by our past," he told the Washington Post.

"Everybody is entitled to have the right to prove that they're a different person, a new person, and [that they] have learned from their mistakes."

Hudson believes Gazza has learned.

"The impression I get is that he wants to move on with his life in several areas, and he really wants to enjoy the game again," he said. "He'll be pretty much totally anonymous in the D.C. area, and he'll be able to blend in as a complete unknown."

That seems to be Gazza's desire. When asked Friday why he wanted to come to MLS, he replied: "To get away from the press."

"I just want to be myself, have a life," he said. "I'm not here to cause any trouble, I don't want to cause any bother."

Hudson liked hearing that.

"We don't want any embarrassments," he said. "This is the biggest gamble of my career. But that's the seduction of a player like Gazza. It's the promise of magic."

Perhaps the best opinion was voiced by Gascoigne's former Tottenham teammate, Gary Mabbutt.

"I hope Gazza goes there to take it seriously and not as a holiday," Mabbutt told the British Press Assn. "It'll be far from that. He'll have to establish himself.

"It's not like when the first American league started, with Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff there to entertain people. Now, it's more serious and competitive--and from watching the World Cup you can see the American players are very fit.

"It's going to be tough for Gazza, but I feel he has the ability to enjoy a couple of seasons there.

"Gazza will be welcomed [because] he has quality and can do the unexpected. His type of football will be very much appreciated by American fans. He's going into the twilight of his career, but ... he's one of the best players I ever played with and one of the few players I would still pay to watch."

The league and D.C. United are counting on just that.

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